As someone who recently tried to persuade Massachusetts General Hospital to take one of my kidneys — we’ll get to that — I noted with interest reports last week that a pig kidney has been successfully transplanted into a human.
The pig-to-human factor isn’t even the most eye-opening aspect of this operation. Since people and pigs were not designed — by nature, by God, your pick — to swap organs, the donor pig was genetically engineered to make its kidney a better fit. The experiment worked. The transplanted kidney functioned for 54 hours.
And because this cutting-edge procedure couldn’t be tried with one of the 90,000 people currently awaiting a kidney on the transplant list — including my Boston cousin, who was hoping for mine — the kidney was transplanted into a brain-dead patient, which I didn’t even know was a thing.
The deceased person’s family gave consent, an act of astounding generosity that shouldn’t be overlooked in our what-about-MY-rights? age. Picture it: Your relative dies and is being kept alive on a ventilator.
A gaggle of scientists rushes over and asks, “Umm, would you mind if we stick a pig kidney into your loved one to see what happens?” And you say “Go ahead.” That family deserves a medal.
I’m jumping on this story, hoping to get ahead of the chorus of complaint. This medical triumph pokes several hot-buttons for outrage: 1) genetic modification 2) experimentation on animals 3) cross-species medical procedures 4) use of dead people to advance science.
I’d better leap in with the decent, humane perspective before all the vegans, misanthropes and ministers get into the game.
While practical application is still long off, this is a marvelous development. There were some 40,000 kidney transplants in the United States last year, but there could have been many more if only more kidneys were available. Half a million Americans, including my cousin, must undergo dialysis to stay alive, a time-consuming, unpleasant procedure. And dangerous: A dozen such patients die every day.
I should address the aforementioned four specific qualms. First, people oppose genetic modification because GMOs sounds scientific and scary. But that’s what farmers and ranchers did for centuries by cross-breeding crops and livestock. The world would starve without genetic modification, and it’s sad that greedy corporations fan this nonsense by advertising lack of GMOs as a consumer benefit, which is like claiming “Now with MORE fairy dust!”
Number Two is experimentation upon animals. Thank God for it. First when you consider other uses animals are put to — bacon for instance, or shoes — harvesting organs is far more ethical.
Third, using animals to cure human ailments is a centuries-old practice. The word “vaccine” is derived from “vacca,” Latin for “cow,” because Sir Edward Jenner first used the mild cowpox virus as a vaccine for smallpox.
To cite a more recent example: Exactly 100 years ago, in the fall of 1921, a pair of Canadians, Dr. Frederick Banting and Dr. Charles Best, were experimenting with dogs whose pancreases were tied off to mimic diabetes. They saw that injecting insulin, gotten from cows and sheep, could lower the dogs’ blood sugar.
Back then, a child diagnosed with juvenile diabetes would live, on average, a year and a half. Now they survive to become vegetarians.
And four: Using dead humans to advance medicine is as old as medicine itself and widespread. Every day medical students dissect cadavers donated by people who, despite the blinding miasma of religious BS through which we grope, donated their bodies to science.
Without doctors willing to rob a grave or befriend a hangman to better understand human anatomy, we’d all be facing plagues like COVID unprotected, rather than just the more fearful, ignorant and belligerent elements of society.
At first, Mass General wouldn’t say why they rejected me as a potential donor, but I pressed. The quarter century of progressively worsening alcoholism? The creeping arthritis? The recent addition of a titanium spine and a hip?
The transplant coordinator demurred, saying it was their judgment based on the form I filled out. No matter. My cousin is a great guy, and several of his friends also stepped up to offer their kidneys.
Because they, too, are great guys, and a reminder that even in our grim era of malice and lies, there are not only stunning medical advances, like this breakthrough, but good people who do selfless things.